Samsung Gear S2 review

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Even with all of the various hardware makers involved in Android Wear, there’s still an issue facing the wearable platform. Namely, once you get beyond the physical design of watches, the software experience is the same across the board. Now, this isn’t exactly a problem, but rather a sticking point.

If you are in the market for a smartwatch, and don’t care all that much about fashion, you’ve got your pick of the litter. But, if you’re more sensible about how your watch looks, and want something that speaks to your tastes, you’re gonna spend more than a couple hundred dollars. Unfortunately, as of today, you aren’t going to get anything special or different under the hood for the money. Specifically, you’re not going to get much difference in the user experience.

Samsung, a brand who has released an Android Wear-powered watch, has a respectable history in the wearable space. Indeed, its home-brewed Tizen OS runs a number of watches, each with a slightly different use case. Its recent effort, the Gear S2, is what could happen were Google to loosen the reigns a bit on how Android Wear might work.

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The Samsung Gear S2 is, arguably, a more unique approach to smart watches than what you might get out of Android Wear. Not for the overall functionality so much, but for the look, feel, intention, and other details. It’s singular enough that it stands out from other smart wearables and provides a breadth of functions. But, before you think this is an outright endorsement, I’m not quite ready to recommend the full $300 sticker price.

The Samsung Gear S2 is its own animal and competes against both the Android Wear and Apple Watch platforms. The two alternatives offer considerably more smarts and long-term viability, sure, but Samsung’s efforts definitely deserve consideration.

First Impressions

The first thing you notice about the Gear S2 is that it offers a futuristic and minimalistic design. The white and silver model we tested begs for attention and pairs rather nicely with most outfits. It’s altogether hip and cool yet also comes across as professional and modern.

There were multiple instances where someone would look at it, wondering or asking which brand it was and whether it was smart. More often, actually, than some of the Moto 360 and Fossil models I’ve worn recently.

Pairing with Samsung smartphones proved to be really simple. It’s basically a matter of downloading an app from the Play Store and connecting via Bluetooth. It’s possible to connect to other models, however, I don’t know how difficult the process is. In theory you only need Android 4.4 or later with 1.5GB of free RAM. It’s worth noting that the watch doesn’t have 100% compatibility with Samsung phones; only select models are promoted by the phone maker.

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It’s worth noting that you might run into a few bumps along the way when first getting familiarized with the Gear S2. Whereas you may feel like you’ve got all the right features turned on or enabled, you might have to install some extra plugins or hooks from Samsung to get them to fully work. Milk Music, for instance, requires you to install some sort of conduit client before it lets you stream it. Email was another area that snagged me. Even though I had all my accounts already set up on my phone, I found it worked better if I used Samsung’s email app instead of relying on Gmail.

Design

I really enjoy the size of the 1.2-inch full circle sAMOLED 360×360 (302dpi) display. It’s right where you want a round watch – not too big or distracting but plenty easy on the eyes.

The rubberized bands conform to your wrist well, if maybe a little too well. Whereas most watch bands tend to drape somewhat loosely, the Gear S2’s bands are curved where they meet the display housing. This makes them want stay in the generally circular shape.

While I didn’t have a problem with it, I can imagine those with a larger wrist may face issues. I fear there might be pressure placed on the straps and their connections. One thing worth noting here is that the watch bands are proprietary and clip in using a button release on the back of each. In other words, you can’t pick up alternative bands from your normal sources.

Navigation and Menus

The rotating bezel around the display is perhaps the most refreshing feature we’ve seen in smartwatches over the last few models. For those unaware, users can rotate the edge of the screen in a clockwise or counter-clockwise manner. Doing so moves from one item to another where you’ll then tap the screen for action.

For instance, you’ll quickly get to fitness, weather, calendar, music remote, heart-rate tracking, and news by turning the dial. Once pulled up, you can tap the screen to move into action.

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Want to swap watch faces? Open an app? Check your call log? Everything goes through the scrolling effect. The UI lends itself nicely, and intuitively, to the round screen and navigation is easy to learn. Remember how quickly you figured out how to navigate the old school iPod? Same thing.

It takes no time to learn that you can hop to things you need or want by touching the screen and rotating the outer bezel. But, there are also two buttons on the side of the watch which offer additional functionality. One brings up the wheel of apps while the other acts as sort of a “back” button. Depending on how much you use your watch, and for what needs, you might not take advantage of those hard buttons.

UI and Apps

IMAG0277Although it runs Samsung’s own Tizen software, the Gear S2 offers up many of the same features as an Android Wear unit. Users can receive vibrating notifications, pull up messages, toggle to apps, track fitness, listen to locally stored music (4GB), and even see what time it is. In all seriousness, I found the Gear S2 to do just about everything I had come to appreciate in my Moto 360 or Huawei Watch.

The Gear S2 comes with more than one dozen watch styles, many of which can be tailored with custom colors or fonts. Although they do look great and cover a gamut of designs, they’re more on the minimal and clean side of things. You won’t find those busy, interactive watch faces that come with Android Wear watches. All look great, though, on the vivid OLED screen but you might wanna push up brightness if you spend a lot of time outside.

One area where the Gear S2 feels comes up short, to me, is in the area of apps. Granted, it’s not as if Android Wear has myriad apps to choose from; however, you at least get the backing of a larger developer community. The Gear S2 gets its apps from Samsung, naturally, and is limited in volume by comparison. Then again, some of what’s available looks to be vetted nicely and works well.

In terms of preloaded content, the Gear S2 is packed with an alarm clock, stopwatch, timer, voice memo, email, messages, and maps with navigation. You can also find titles like Flipboard, Yelp, and Milk Music if you’re looking for others to get started. All apps tested were clean and easy on the eyes. Whether it’s a notification of an incoming call, an email, or something else, it’s not hard to discern what’s happening on the circular display.

As you might expect, apps like Samsung’s S Health work nicely with the Gear S2. It’s no secret that Samsung wants users to adopt its own ecosystem of apps and services. If that’s your bag, you’ll be pleased with the experience.

I don’t rely much on the Samsung suite of apps and often install third party stuff from the Play Store. With that said, the titles work well together and represent Samsung well. In other words you’ll likely enjoy the pulse tracking and fitness aspect of S Health.

Battery

If there’s one area that really impressed me with the Gear S2, it was with the battery life. Unlike Android Wear models that require you to charge them on an almost daily basis, the Samsung Gear S2 gives wearers days of juice. It’s not exactly the same as you’ll find in a Pebble, but it’s nice knowing you don’t have to get home to charge up. Falling asleep with the watch on is totally cool again.

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To be fair, mileage varies depending on usage. Play a bunch of music, or use the watch to make a lot of calls and you’re bound to go through it faster than a more passive user. Moreover, tweaking the settings for how the face works when not is use is also an easy way to ensure more life.

Voice features and calls

Let’s face it, making a call on your wrist sound awesome, if only on paper. In practicality, however, that’s easily debatable. For starters, the sound you get from the watch’s speaker isn’t as good as what you’ll find in smartphones. And, if you’ve ever tried music on a phone, you know it’s often a tinny sound. After trying music on the Gear S2 I quickly resolved to not even mess with that again. Paired to headphones though, that’s a different story.

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Having a built-in microphone and speaker truly is convenient, but it’s not the sort of experience that will get daily usage. At least not from me. Where it does come in handy, though, is for the active user or someone who might like to spend time away from their phone without truly disconnecting.

It is really nice to be able to leave your phone at home and go for a walk or run and not miss out on calls or emails. No, you’re not gonna keep up to date with Facebook or Instagram likes, but that’s not why you’re doing this. Rather, you’d like to be reached in the event of an emergency or when contacts can’t find you through the normal channels. Moreover, it’s kinda cool to have a dedicated phone number that can be used for filtering work or extracurricular schedules.

If you’re buying or considering the 4G-connected version of the Gear S2, you’ll definitely want to get it added to your mobile account. For the extra few dollars per month you’ll find peace of mind and extra functionality. Besides, you’ve already forked over the big bucks for the device itself. Now it’s time to enjoy it.

As someone who has become conditioned to use Google (Now) for all sorts of reasons, it’s tough for me to switch to other services. Sure, Samsung’s S Voice is a nice alternative, and bests what other phone makers are doing, but it’s still limited in scope. Not only that, but it (naturally) wants to give preference to Samsung’s own services and initiatives. To that end, I found the voice features of the Gear S2 to be nice, but not quite fully baked. Or, perhaps, I just found it lacking in areas that I need.

It’s quite simple to ask the watch for time, directions, basic questions, or even math problems. On the other hand, you won’t get the backing of Google’s algorithm and general smarts. But, for most people, they’ll certainly appreciate being able to ping the watch with a “Hey, Samsung” or whatever to pull up info. Generally speaking, the experience is fast and accurate; it just doesn’t cast the wide net of a Google Now or Siri.

Conclusion

Even though it runs Samsung’s own Tizen OS, and favors Samsung’s services and initiatives a little too much, I was impressed with the Gear S2. For my tastes, it’s similar to what you’ll get in Android Wear but falls short of the full experience.

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There’s enough customization here to keep your watch feeling fresh. Moreover, there are plenty of app hooks that come from Samsung’s relationships with developers. Would you like replacing Android Wear with this? Probably not. But, if you’ve never had a smartwatch, this is an excellent start.

Pricing might be a deterrent for some consumers, but it’s still in line with most smartwatches. If you’re a Samsung fan through and through, or keep up with its products, you’ll feel right at home with the Gear S2. Can you get away with not having the cellular connectivity? Of course. But, once you’ve had a taste of it, you may be hard-pressed to stop using it. Even if that’s only once every few days or weeks.

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